As readers of this blog know, I advocate looking at an issue from multiple perspectives and using facts, logic, and an arsenal of critical thinking skills to reach a conclusion about just about everything. For some issues, this is easy. For others, it is very, very difficult. I am facing that difficulty right now. I don’t usually like to post about current events because I want my posts to be generally applicable instead of linked to a specific issue, but this post will be an exception. I am having an incredibly difficult time keeping any sense of perspective over the fact that the federal government shut down at 12:00 am on October 1, 2013 because of what seems to essentially be a game of chicken – or more accurately, a hostage situation. I just don’t get it. I am trying to remind myself that as much as I believe in my point of view, the people on the other side believe in theirs and have a right to it… but I am also reminding myself that sometimes, it’s okay to come to the conclusion that the other side is just. plain. wrong. This feels like one of those times to me.
Much of my current state of mind comes from emotion, and I admit that it can color my analysis, but in this case I also think the facts are on my side. The thing is, this showdown over the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is not just about facts; it’s about ideology. It’s about a fundamental disconnect between two ideological realms: one that believes the government has a duty to provide for all its citizens, and one that believes that individuals are solely responsible for taking care of their own needs. Of course, there are nuances to these two ideologies, and a broad spectrum of positions between their poles. But my training in anthropology has taught me about the structure of culture and society – from the simplest hunter-gatherer band to the most complex industrial civilization – and I am convinced that the hunter-gatherers have it right. These groups stress interdependence among their members, with an egalitarian structure that doesn’t allow for status hierarchies or any one person having more power or possessions than others in the group. In fact, hunter-gatherers must provide for each other, because the survival of individuals depends on the survival of the group. Group survival is paramount. In many industrial societies, this notion has been turned on its head. Status, materialism, and individual achievement are paramount. However, this does not mean the burden of the ruling class to provide for societal needs is negated; in fact, it becomes more important than ever, because a class-based, stratified social system is by its very definition a system that allocates more resources at the top, and fewer resources at the bottom. The bootstrap individualist will argue that any individual has the capacity, with hard work and gumption, to climb to the top of the ladder. This is loosely true, but it ignores the complexities of living within an entrenched class system. In a class-based system, the playing field is not level. When you are standing 100 yards behind the starting line when the gun goes off, you have to run harder and surmount more obstacles than the runners who start ahead of you… and those runners are apt to leave even more obstacles in their wake. And, of course, there are only so many spots on the winners’ podium, so even if you see it and keep running towards it, chances are the people already standing there will fight tooth and nail to retain their position.
In many ways I believe that the hegemonic lie perpetuated by this system – that is, the lie that there is space on the podium for everyone and all it takes is hard work to get there – is the root cause of our current crisis. The fight to defund the Affordable Care Act is championed by those who believe it is unfair for government to provide care to its poorest citizens. It is fought by those who believe that the poor just don’t work hard enough, or don’t try hard enough, or are lazy or entitled or accustomed to government handouts. Unfortunately, there are examples of people for whom this is true; but I don’t think it is true for the vast majority of those who are too poor, too sick, or too underemployed to afford health insurance. A successful culture is defined as one that secures the survival of the individuals that comprise it in a way that is fulfilling for most of them, most of the time. Clearly we are not meeting that definition in the United States. Other industrialized nations are having similar troubles, but at least most of them seem to have figured out that taking care of people’s physical (i.e. medical) needs is one thing that government should be responsible for. Our individualistic hegemony has obscured the path to a successful culture and society, so that opponents of the health care act criticize it as “unfair” because money they consider theirs – that is, the taxes they pay – is being spent to subsidize health care for those unable to pay for it. It’s “unfair” because those without health insurance now have a way to afford it because it spreads the risk amongst a much larger pool and allows for much cheaper premiums. It’s “unfair” because low-income people are being subsidized with taxes from individuals and businesses when they should just be working harder so they can get off the dole. It’s “unfair” because Congress is “exempt” (forgetting, conveniently, that the ACA is meant for people whose employers don’t provide health coverage, which Congress – also known as the federal government! – does provide for both elected officials and their staffs). It’s “unfair” because the burden of keeping the population healthy is being borne by those higher up the status hierarchy. To me, this is like those people on the winners’ podium – who know damn well that space on the podium is limited – flaunting their trophies and doing end-zone dances instead of shaking the hands of their fellow competitors and offering to help them over some of the barriers that they themselves may not have had to face. Instead of acknowledging that we are all in the same race, and working to make that race an equal chance for all, the winners instead blame the other competitors for having to race on an uneven track that they had no hand in devising and have very little ability to change.
As I said at the start, I have a very hard time maintaining my objectivity about this subject. All I can see is that a group of individualist ideologues is willing to take down the entire system just so that our weakest, most vulnerable citizens have no chance at even seeing the podium, much less standing on it. I know this part of my argument is not logical, but right now, with this situation, I can’t help but give some heed to emotion.